Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Before We Begin: A Full Accounting of My History with “Game of Thrones”

Before we get into an examination of how the beginning of book “A Game of Thrones” works, I thought I’d better come clean about my rocky history with the series.

To begin, let’s go back to before the TV show was made. Like a lot of people, I had that one friend who kept insisting I read the books. But I don’t like fantasy novels much, I’d say, at which point he’d insist that this was fantasy for non-fantasy fans, and everybody should check them out. I still resisted, and it was for a rather silly reason: I took offense at the “R. R.” initials. I correctly guessed that wasn’t his real name (he added the second “R”) and it seemed so presumptuous that this author who was going to posit himself as an American Tolkien had also adopted his initials. So I never read the books.

But then the show came out and people went crazy for it. I watched the pilot and decided not to continue with it because it ended with Bran being pushed out the window, and I was afraid that the show would ask us, as many HBO shows do, to sympathize more with the victimizer than the victim, which I didn’t want to do.

But people kept going crazy for it, so I went ahead and gave it another try when it came out on DVD, and I found that my fears were, at least initially, unfounded. Unlike many HBO shows, this was a show with a refreshing sense of good and evil. The show made no attempt, in that first season, to justify the Lannisters’ behavior. I had managed to avoid spoilers and I was, of course, shocked by Ned’s death, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the show. I admired its gutsiness and shifted my hopes for a happy ending onto Robb.

The second season I found more disturbing than the first. It did indeed seek to redeem Jamie Lannister a bit, which annoyed me. More troubling, the razing (and presumably raping) of Winterfell was played as a jokey scene. I was also beginning to sense a pattern: Ned’s mercy towards Cercei led to his death, now Robb’s mercy towards Theon led to the holocaust of his home. The show was very well made, but it was starting to seem too harsh for me.

Then came the third season. There was a storyline that stretched the entire season that consisted of nothing but Theon being tortured, episode after episode. That pushed me to the breaking point. Then I got to the Red Wedding. I could no longer deny the politics of the series: The naïve goodness of the Starks was simply there to be punished, and the sadistic savvy of the Lannisters looked good by comparison. I decided I was done with it.

But I also knew that I was addicted. I had to know what happened next. I came up with a clever plan: I simply went to Wikipedia and read the in depth plot descriptions of the rest of book 3 and books 4 and 5. Now I knew what was coming (I took some comfort in the upcoming deaths of Joffrey and Tywin, but not much) so I didn’t have to watch it. Once the show moved on past book 5, I no longer knew what was happening, so I started reading occasional episode recaps to slake my curiosity. I was frequently tempted to dive back in and catch up, but the endless litany of rapes I was reading about squelched that impulse.

That brings us to this blog series. I’m looking to cover books that everybody has read, and “A Game of Thrones” was an obvious candidate. I had already watched a 10-hour adaptation of the first book, so I figured it held few surprises. In fact, I could maybe read just the first twenty pages that I marked up. So I started reading the book (listening to the audiobook, actually). As my friend had told me all those years ago, it was very well written. So well written, in fact, that I got totally sucked in.

Even though I’m not a fan of long books, I found a joy in reading this that I hadn’t felt in a while, and I never wanted it to stop. The one scene that almost stopped me was Joffrey taunting Sansa with her father’s severed head. Why was I reading something so sadistic? And why couldn’t I stop? Was I a masochist? Even when I finally got to the end, I realized that I would go through withdrawal symptoms if I stopped there. I loaded up Book 2 and started that.

But then I got to the scene where Robb sends Theon off, and that finally broke me free. Once again, Martin was about to harshly punish a Stark’s mercy, and I of course knew it would only get worse, so I stopped listening and moved on to other books. I then read more online about the rest of the book series and how they varied from the TV show.

So here we are. For the next few weeks, I’ll break down what I read and why it has such strong effects on me, both positive and negative. Sorry I can’t come to it having read every book or seen every episode, but those who have are free to call me out if I get anything wrong.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Annotation Project: A Game of Thrones

Permission to treat this book as hostile?  Like Festivus, these annotations turn into a bit of an airing of grievances, even though there’s a lot to like about this book and this series.  I’ll get into my history with the series next time.  You can download these notes as a Word file here.  As always, apologies that this series doesn’t work very well on phones. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Establish the Worst Things That Could Happen

“Holes” uses a classic trick: it establishes the two worst things that could happen, then those things of course happen. First, after the two “usually”s I mentioned last time, we get an “Always”
  • But you don’t want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard. That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.
  • Always.
Then we’re told that there are no fences at the camp because anyone attempting to run away is guaranteed to die in the desert. Of course, before the book is over, Stanley will survive both getting swarmed by lizards and attempting to run away from camp.

This is an area where you can benefit from your reader’s ability to guess where you’re going based on other books they’ve read. Sachar could tease us in his narration and say, “Little did Stanley suspect that soon he would do just that,” but he doesn’t have to. He knows that we’ve read books before and we know that if it gets an “Always”, then we’re about to see an amazing exception. That “Always” is all the foreshadowing he needs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Writing for Reluctant Readers

“Holes” is a great book for girls, men and women, but it’s especially valuable as a rare book that you can use to get reluctant boys to read something. And of course that’s great, because, on a certain level, we’re all reluctant readers. Even full-time readers who get paid to read books are always looking for excuses to dump one and move on to the next. Anything that can suck readers and rivet them to the page is going to help you tremendously in the marketplace and in finding a place in people’s hearts. So how does the book do that? It uses some classic tricks:

  • Short chapters. Chapter 1 is one page. Chapter 2 is just eight sentences. Short chapters give the reader a sense of accomplishment.
  • Simple sentences. Let’s look at that beautiful first sentence: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” No adjectives, no adverbs, one specific detail, and an ironic contradiction. That’s perfect.
  • Short paragraphs, which create a great voice.

Let’s look at four paragraphs:

  • Here’s a good rule to remember about rattlesnakes and scorpions: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
  • Usually.
  • Being bitten by a scorpion or even a rattlesnake is not the worst thing that can happen to you. You won’t die.
  • Usually.

You can’t help but hear Sam Elliot reading that. It’s charming. It’s bad-ass. It tells us that Sachar cares about our reading experience. We trust him to entertain us and we want more.

If these pages are all you’ve read, you might think, “So what? He’s telling a simple story with simple words, so of course it won’t be challenging to readers.” Those of you who have read the whole book, on the other hand, know how complex and rich the book will become. Sachar isn’t dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator, he’s easing entry into an ultimately very ambitious book.

Every children’s author dreams of writing the book that will make a child fall in love with reading for the first time. For many, this will be that book, then they can revisit at an older age and more fully realize how much meaning was packed into it, and how skillfully it drew them in.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: The Power of Mixing Information Superior, Information Inferior, and Equal Information Positions

We’ve talked before about information superior, information inferior, and equal information positions. Let’s look at how “Holes” uses all three effectively.

The book begins with a great example of information inferior. The first line is “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” This isn’t Stanley talking to us, it’s an omniscient narrator telling us something he doesn’t know. Only when we’ve been told omnisciently about the camp for a page do we meet our hero and switch to somewhat-limited third person narration. Once we’re privy to his thoughts, one of the first we hear is this: “Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.”

Ouch! We care so much when we read this! We know a horrible fact that he doesn’t know, and we feel anguish to anticipate the pain that we know he’s about to have. Our information superior position adds emotional impact. We wish we could tell him what we know.

But we’re also in an information inferior position to Stanley in some ways. As I said before, he’s stoic, so he’s not stewing in thoughts of his false conviction, and the narrator isn’t in a hurry to reveal all either. I had to include six chapters in my sample to get the crime in there.

What effect does that have? If it had been poorly done, we would have gotten annoyed, but instead we’re intrigued. Bits of info are parceled out steadily enough to keep our interested whetted. At one point it seems the narrator is about to tell us before he gets distracted. Here are two one-sentence paragraphs:

  • It was this latest project that led to Stanley’s arrest.
  • The bus ride became increasingly bumpy because the road was no longer paved.

The narrator is jostled out of his train of thought, forcing us to wait for two more chapters. We enjoy this. We want to know, and we enjoy craving it, at least for a while. We would get annoyed if we had to wait ten chapters, though.

But of course, for most of these pages, we’re in an information equal position. We are given some details of the camp before Stanley gets there but we still meet Mr. Sir and the other campers perched right on Stanley’s shoulder. This should always be the default unless you’re looking to create an effect like the two listed above. It would alienate and annoy us to be introduced to everybody by the narrator before Stanley met them, or to be denied too much access to Stanley’s thoughts.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: How to Write a Great Villain Introduction

Last time we looked at how we came to believe in, care about, and invest in Stanley, the hero of “Holes.” Now let’s look at how we end up doing the same thing for a villain, all in one paragraph.

Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:

  • ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
  • Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
  • ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’

So right away, we…

  • Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books.
  • Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings.
  • We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.

With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:

  • The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
  • Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
  • ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.

He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Why Do We Like Stanley in “Holes”?

(I’ll be illustrating these with still from the movie, for lack of a better option, but it’s less than ideal, partially because skinny Shia is miscast.  Still, it would be too much to ask of a teen actor to lose all that weight, so it was probably the best solution.)
In my book, I talk about how the first three jobs of a writer are to get the reader to believe in, care about and invest in the hero, so let’s look at how “Holes” does this, which is somewhat tricky for a few reasons:

The best way to get us to believe is though specificity and unique details that sound more like real life than fiction. But this book has a tricky genre, the tall tale, so Sachar is never going to ask us to fully believe in Stanley Yelnats as a non-fictional character. He has a silly name. His father is an inventor (which is common in kids books but not in real life). He was sent to prison because stolen shoes fell out of the sky and hit him in the head (though that is later explained). We’ll always see Stanley more as a fictional character than a real character. So in service of his genre, Sachar has to stint on believability, but he makes up for it with caring and investing.

On the other hand, it’s easy to care about Stanley: He’s going to a brutal prison camp for a crime he didn’t commit, and, what’s worse, he’s poor. He’s never been to camp and hopes this will be fun, which breaks our hearts.

Investing is also tricky, but the book pulls it off nicely. The easiest way to get us to invest is to have a hero be badass or defiant, but Stanley doesn’t try to escape and he doesn’t sass back. Nevertheless, he’s got something we love: secret honor. He’s stoic about what’s happened to him, and he never insists he’s innocent in these pages, either when dealing with his jailers or his campmates. Even the thoughts we’re privy to through limited third-person narration don’t complain about it. He’s accepted his unfair sentence and he’s prepared to serve it without complaint, and that, in its own way, is a type of defiance: He’s not going to show any weakness.

He also tells us that it’s a family trait to be hopeful, so we sense that we’ve got the right hero to help us survive this prison camp. If he was depressive, we wouldn’t want to go to this miserable place with him.

Next time, we’ll look at a villain introduction and how it also hits believe, care and invest.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Annotation Project: Holes

So let’s keep going with some books. At this point I fear that, without diving into the high school canon, I’ve covered all three recent books that everybody has read. I’m trying to stick to the kind of books that publishers are actually buying today, rather than the classics we’ve all read, but I’ll go back and do some of those, too. For now, let’s meet halfway and do Louis Sachar’s modern classic “Holes”. This is my favorite non-Rowling kids novel: very simple on the surface but deeply complex and meaningful underneath. Of course, most of that complexity hasn’t become evident yet in these pages, but we’ll look at the foreshadowing.  You can click on the pages below or download the doc here.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Gone Girl: The Archive

Before we get back into books, let me do an archive for my “Gone Girl” pieces. Around the movie came out I did some “Meddler” posts where I attempted to fix some plot holes in the book and movie:

Later I did a post about using different voices, and used a still from the movie to illustrate it, but didn’t really examine the book or movie at the time:

Finally, I did an Annotation Project breakdown of the first ten pages, followed by some follow-up posts, including two more in-depth pieces about different voices: